Delight Your Senses and Feel the Russian Culture
Who does not love the Nutcracker Ballet?
This Russian Ballet masterpiece with famous melodic classical music by Tchaikovsky has always been a favorite of mine.
You would have to be a cold, heartless robot to not enjoy the beauty, the scenery, the costumery, the graceful, elegant but strong ballet choreography of this production.
Seriously, when in Russia, one must attend such a colorful, historic attraction to feel the Russian culture.
I was so happy to be able to see it live in person at the esteemed Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. In the summertime even! I didn’t have to wait until Christmastime back home in the states.
I don’t even know how we lucked out and were able to get tickets last-minute to this production as they only perform at this theatre a dozen times in a year.
The Mariinsky Theatre was built around 1783 but the first Nutcracker Ballet didn’t appear until more than a hundred years later in 1892. The history is long and rich of all the esteemed ballet dancers who have graced this stage.
Photo-taking was not allowed and there were stern looking marms at each door keeping an eye on the crowd. Every time I whipped out my iPhone they stared like a hawk at me. I only managed to take some selfies of my daughter and her classmate sitting in front of us. And goofed around taking some selfies of me and my husband. I did snap a few of the audience and the chandeliers hanging overhead but they came out too dark.
We sat in a 4-seat box section. It felt old, and wooden and smelled of perfume from another era. Great setting to transport one’s imagination into the whole performance. At the end, the audience clapped, then clapped louder, and shouted encore! And the troupe came out again for another bow. The shouts of Bravo! were deafening and it was a dramatic experience to behold.
I should add as an afterthought, that we did enjoy a great dinner before we went to the theatre. It was at the Sadko Restaurant right across the street. We had a traditional shashlik (Russian meat on skewers) that was delicious!
The second tallest building in St. Petersburg
I discovered there is more than one church in St. Petersburg named Peter & Paul. The first one I visited is the Peter & Paul Cathedral next to the Peterhof Palace about an hour drive outside of the city limits of St. Petersburg. Although beautiful, it is more reminiscent of a country church than a grand cathedral. The second one I visited is the Peter & Paul Fortress, a multiple building complex, which contains the oldest church in St. Petersburg titled the Cathedral of the Saints Peter and Paul. This is where all the Russian Rulers are buried, including the Romanov family.
That is Some Serious Russian History!
In 2015, I visited this fortress while on a 3-week trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. As with most, if not all the cathedrals and castles and palaces I visited, I came away impressed. This time not so much with shiny gold spires but because of the reverence of the place.
Many people were lining up to enter the Grand Ducal Mausoleum to view all the tombs of Russian Royalty buried here. Peter the Great was buried here in 1715. His family members are also buried here. In 1998 the entire Romanov family remains were brought together to be entombed from the various places they had been buried before. There is also much to read along the hallway walls of each member of the Romanov family. Everything you see speaks of heavy history, of torment and tears, and sacred honor, so deep is the Russian history in this place.
Internment and Imprisonment; A Captive Russian History to See
There is a jail on the grounds. It is called the Trubetskoy Bastion Prison.
"I didn’t take photos because it was so dark and depressing"
Many notable Russian dissidents were confined here such as Maxim Gorky and Leon Trotsky. I just wanted to get through the tour and move on to somewhere outside since it was a sunny summer day. To think many of the prison cells had no windows, no natural light coming through. It’s a wonder how these prisoners survived through sheer will power alone. They weren’t treated very well but at least this history is preserved and available for public viewing.
Escape to Fresh Air Beach
Upon walking outside, I wanted to move away and find somewhere with a natural feel to it, so I spied the Neva River and walked towards it. I came upon a small strip of a rocky, sandy beach that I had to hop down to get closer. Once on this “beach” and looking back to the high walls surrounding the fortress made them seem even higher and secluded. But the sun was shining, and I found a few people who were enjoying it. People come here year-round I found out, even in winter with heavy snow on the beach, because that’s what Russians do. It’s a little stretch of privacy right up against the very close and heavily flowing Neva river with the backdrop of the fortress.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Available on This Tour
Upon leaving the fortress, I happily discovered The Hop-On Hop-Off bus pick up station was just across the street from the entrance. This is another good reason why purchasing the Petersburg Card was handy. You can change your independent touring plans as you see fit. Luckily the wait for the next bus wasn’t long so we sat down at a snack bar and waited. I saw many more people enjoying the summer sun on the lawn that surrounds the front and sides of the fortress. There is a little river that runs around the fortress, perhaps it was used as a moat, but it didn’t seem deep. I saw fathers and their sons playing with motorized toy boats on it. There were some larger people-size boats too. I imagine in Winter it freezes over. But this was summer, and it was time to soak up some light in a dark history filled in the Peter and Paul Fortress.
Visit an Imperial Estate for Russian Royalty
At first glance upon arrival, you see the typical onion dome spires that traditionally adorn Russian churches. These were gold and shiny giving you a taste of what is to come. As you start the walk into the grounds of the majestic Peterhof Palace in Petrodverts, you can see the grandeur of how Peter the Great wanted to live in the 17th century. His dream was to recreate a Versailles Palace in his homeland. It was given the name Peterhof which in German means Peter’s Court. Even after Peter the Great died, his Palace was inhabited by other Royals, most notably the Romanov Family.
Most Majestic Sprawling Park Grounds Leave You Saying WOW!
The grandest part of this complex is its grounds covering hundreds of acres and are a sight to behold. I was there on a warm, blue sky, summer day in July 2015. I was captivated by the shiny golden statues and fountains, known as the Cascade, where people line up just to take photos beside these objets d’art. Naked gilded males, 10-feet tall or so, with nothing to cover their privates. No blushing allowed. There are even costumed characters that you can take a photo with for a nominal fee. They won’t let you take photos of them however and are quick to turn around if they spy you starting to photograph them. Nevertheless, I took these awkward photos of some of the 17th century costumed characters.
Take a look at this gallery to see these many statues and fountains:
View where the Russian Royal Children were Baptized
The Palace itself was closed on the day I was there but we did manage to go inside the Imperial Chapel where the royal children were baptized. This chapel is gilded in gold but still had a quaint, country feel to it mostly due to its petite size. It’s not exactly a big church but more like a small place of worship for a large royal family which is what it was intended for. You must put on paper shoe covers to keep the floor as clean as possible.
Stroll Along the Beautiful Tree-Lined Walk to the Sea
There is a long, but very worthwhile, walk down through the lower gardens to the edges of the complex which lead to the Gulf of Finland. A nice, cool blowing breeze kept the temperature just right even though it was a beautiful, bright warm day in summer. Hundreds of different types of trees and plants fill this area, neatly taken care of, where you can wander lost in your own thoughts admiring what it must’ve been like when the Royals lived here. Serene and peaceful is the feeling I got.
See the Sights, Eat Some Food, Go Back on a Hydrofoil
Once you reach the water’s edge you can see people standing on the rocks fishing for sturgeon. I didn’t know it was sturgeon until I saw the sign. Later when we ate dinner at the relaxing Restaurant Shtandart, I saw a couple order a very large platter of a whole sturgeon fish. They devoured it together and left only the fish head carcass. I elected to have lamb stew and we also shared communal plates of salad. We ate outside on the terrace and enjoyed the lovely ambiance amidst all the greenery and sea breeze.
Methods of Transportation to and from Peterhof
In another article I wrote about getting around the city of SPB by bus, walking, or Uber/Taxi. When in Peterhof you have the option to return to St. Petersburg by bus or hydrofoil. You can purchase a St. Petersburg Card to save money and use it for most public transportation including the hydrofoil boat. Since I arrived to Peterhof by bus which took a little over an hour, I decided to try the hydrofoil boat across the Gulf of Finland to get back to St. Petersburg. It was quite choppy but fun and only took 20 minutes.
Add this day trip to your agenda the next time you are in St. Petersburg, Russia. You won’t be disappointed. Do allow the whole day, instead of a half, so you can go at your own pace. And if after touring the grounds of the Peterhof Palace you still have some time and energy, take a walk across the street to see the Peter and Paul Cathedral. (Not to be confused with the Peter and Paul Fortress where the Romanov Family is interred.) I didn't get a chance to go inside this church but did snap a quick photo of it as its colors are in earth tones and contrasted sharply against the shiny gilded Peterhof Palace.
Russia: St. Petersburg
This was an incredible experience! Forget all the worries about Russia not being friendly to Americans! I had the pleasure of meeting a variety of friendly people many who spoke English. From Uber drivers, to my AirBnB host, to the Professors at EUSP, to just everyday people at restaurants, shops, and museums – all were polite. This made for a warm feeling on this memorable trip.
Polkovo Airport, SPB
The only negative I can mildly complain about is upon arrival at the Polkovo airport in St. Petersburg
Our luggage didn’t make it with us. we had to stand in line at a desk with heavily made-up young women who never smiled. We were required to fill out paper forms in quadruplicate! If one little mistake was found, you had to redo the whole piece of paper again. That happened twice. Another example was that no blue ink pens were accepted, just black. You had to completely itemize, from memory no less, the contents of your suitcase and attach a value to each item. After about 1 ½ hours of going through this tedious bureaucratic process we were allowed to leave the customs area. We were given a print out with vague instructions to call a number in the lost luggage department. I was so exhausted and exasperated at the same time I got the giggles. I’m sure they thought “What a crazy American!” as they threw me the side-eye from time to time.
Getting Around by Taxi & Uber
Our taxi driver was waiting for us the whole time outside customs as I was able to text our AirBnB host what was going on. (Our AirBnB host had arranged the taxi transfer) We met up with our taxi driver Sergei next to the Starbucks in the Polkovo airport. He spoke very little English but when he smiled his gold teeth showed he was eager to help us out. Sergei’s driving was a bit like Mr. Toad’s wild ride at Disneyland. I don’t know if that’s because he had to wait so long for us to leave customs and he had another job to go to, or this was just how driving is in St. Petersburg. It took me the 2 weeks to realize the latter.
Later, on other occasions to get around the city, our Uber drivers took risks I wouldn’t, but then, I had to consider the layout of the city being from the 17th century. It was never designed to hold millions of vehicles, just horse carriages. Thus, the modern-day result was that Russian drivers became very savvy about congested one-way streets and speed was essential to navigate. In other words, buckle up and hold on!
Nevsky Prospekt=Main Street
We made it to our apartment on Nevsky Prospekt. I rented it through AirBnB and found it accommodated our basic needs very nicely. The location was fantastic on the Nevsky Prospekt, which is the main boulevard through the city of St. Petersburg, Russia. Many tourist places, such as museums, shops, cafes, restaurants, etc. are within an easy walking distance. The bus is also available, but I found they run a bit slow and are very crowded. It never took more than 20 minutes to get around town and see the sights. Even McDonalds was located around the corner and at 1130pm at night was open, busy, and between my very basic Russian and the cashier’s limited English, I managed to order the equivalent of 3 Big Mac meals for the equivalent of a few dollars. Gotta love that exchange rate between Rubles and Dollars!
We came here independently, without the services of a tour operator or travel agent and managed to do so many things on our own. We even got our tourist visas independently. See my article here on that topic: How To Get A Russian Tourist Visa
More on this trip to St. Petersburg will be broken down into separate articles by places visited; Summer Garden, Hermitage Museum, Palace Square, Peter & Paul Fortress, Marble Palace, Mikhailovsky Castle, Starbucks, Peterhof, Mariinsky Theatre, Dostoevsky Museum, Pushkin, Catherine Palace, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and Faberge Museum. Stay tuned…
Follow these helpful tips
I travelled to Russia on my own, without the help of a tour operator. And so, I had to apply for a Russian Tourist Visa myself.
Russia REQUIRES an invitation letter to start the visa process. If you are booking through a travel agent or tour operator they can help you get the process going making things smoother for you.
But if you are travelling independently as I did, you need to figure out how to get it on your own.
Here is how I did it.
Russian Website St. Petersburg Guide
I used St. Petersburg Guide for $19.99 USD per person with fast turnaround service in a couple of days.
I then went to the Russian Consulate website for my area in the USA and filled out the Russian visa application form. After following all the instructions and filling out the forms, I sent my application off along with the $193 fee in a cashiers check. Seven days later I picked up my passport in person with the visa page inserted and was ready to go to Russia!
Allow Enough Time
I started this process about 2 months in advance of my travel.
I got a tourist visa which is valid for only up to 30 days. The dates you state on your visa application must be within that time frame. For example, I picked July 15 to August 15 as my dates of travel but actually arrived on July 18th and left on August 3rd. They are strict about not wanting the traveler to enter BEFORE the initial date stated, nor can you leave AFTER the date stated.
Get Your Migration Card Upon Arrival in Russia
Once you enter the borders you will get a migration card. It is a little piece of paper that fits inside your passport. (Don’t lose it!) You use that migration card to register within 7 days of your arrival. They are strict about that too. Usually your hotel can do this service for free. But in my case, I had rented an apartment from Airbnb.com. so I was able to use the services of St. Petersburg guide again.
St. Petersburg Guide arranged to go to the Post Office to obtain the stamp and bring the card to me. This was most helpful as I don’t speak Russian proficiently and didn’t want to stand in a line all day. I agreed to meet Max, the liaison, at the local Starbucks to retrieve my card. It was as simple as that.
Streamlined Process with Experts
If you are going to Russia on your own, I would recommend you use St. Petersburg Guide. Max (a young Millenial) is whom I emailed with and eventually met in person. He was most helpful and congenial. They are a legitimate company of knowledgeable people.
No visit to St. Petersburg, Russia is complete without a self-guided tour of the Hermitage Museum.
I have been to the Louvre in Paris. I would say there is a comparison in terms of the huge size of both art museums. Both have 3 floors. The Louvre, however, is considered the largest museum in the world.
But let’s get to talking about The Hermitage Museum. What did I see, feel, hear? Is it worth the 1 hour wait in line outside to get in? (That’s without a ticket in advance) I would say most definitely it’s worth a wait in a long line to get in on any day. Because once you’re in, you are transported to the elegance and refinery of the Russian Noble Era.
This Museum started with several art pieces as donated by Empress Catherine of Russia in the 17th century. Do you want to see the paintings that captivated Russian Royalty? Both in portrait and in spirit.
The Hermitage Museum, built in 1764, contains everything from pre-historic art and Egyptian antiquities, to Italian Renaissance, modern art and nine centuries of Russian art. It simply is breathtaking in its scope of objects spanning a good chunk of history.
I went through it in about 7 hours with a stop for lunch at their snack café. And I didn’t even finish viewing all the wings. I paid extra to get a private tour of the early Rus people. That intrigued me due to my Russian heritage. I wanted to get a feel for what these people were like. They were certainly not village peasants but rather had a system of organized hierarchy, including a Queen and King. I mention that because in this private room, there was lots of gold jewelry and ornaments. I didn’t expect 9th century people to be so good at crafting objects of art and adornment.
It really becomes a marathon session to take in the Hermitage. Just like the Louvre, you can’t run through it in even half-a-day let alone a whole day. It’s just too exhausting because you are pushing up against throngs of people all vying and trying to view the same important works of art.
I made it a point to move around a lot when it got too crowded so that I could relish things more quietly and on my own time. I like to be contemplative when in the presence of these relics so that I can let my mind wander freely. I can’t do that when people in 10 different languages are shouting in my ear.
The views of the Neva River from the windows also added to the ambience of antiquity. It gave a sense of grandeur and spaciousness. From that same area, was a room where Russian and European Royalty and Governmental Officials would gather in their soirees. I got the vibe their ghosts still haunted the scenery.
As I was leaving the Hermitage, trying to make my way down the grand marble staircase with red carpet, I heard some laughing between a boy and a man. The boy was running ahead of the man, fast down the stairs. The man, as he flew by me, stood out because he was wearing an old-fashioned peasant type Russian shirt in green. He had a beard. He was pale. It turns out his son (I’m assuming his son) was making a bee line to the rest room downstairs. But this man wasn’t dressed in modern clothing. I heard him speaking Russian to the boy as they disappeared into the toilets downstairs. That whoosh as they went by woke me up a bit, enough to finish getting myself to the exit of the museum.
Once outside, don’t forget to take photos of the Palace Square that surrounds the Hermitage. The Alexander Column sits right in the middle of the square – you can’t miss it at 155 feet tall. Statues of the 2-headed Eagle adorn the iron gate that envelops the statue. Step right up close to view the artwork.